ALL PRESETS ARE OFF Listeners find refuge on public airwaves

A different turbulence shook the airwaves when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich vowed to slash federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn awards grants to PBS television and radio stations.

Rhetoric aside, the decline turned out to be gradual and public radio appears defiantly robust. Audience numbers for KQED 88.5 FM have increased from 350,000 in 1992 to a current stable of more than 500,000 members. Smaller KALW 91.7 FM has experienced a gentle rise in listenership to 11,000.

Both KQED and KALW subscribe to National Public Radio programming and other noncommercial services. Locally produced programs comprise about 20 percent. Tech Nation, Forum and the California Report operate under KQED’s auspices. KALW’s favored productions include West Coast Live and music hours such as Patchwork Quilt, Folk Music and Beyond, and Bluegrass Signal.

Sometimes dismissed as dull elitism, public radio provides auditory relief from rote 30-second headline readings, uninformed rants or endless Chumbawamba loops. KQED runs talks from City Arts and Lecture and Commonwealth Club, which features high-level, influential names from business, politics and entertainment.

KALW’s call-in show “Work with Marty Nemko” answers questions about professional dilemmas from body language to getting a raise to office affairs. Its ownership by the San Francisco Unified School District also explains why lunch menu readings and school board meetings are part of the weekday programming.

A premier example of unabashed proletarianism is “Car Talk, ” the automobile call-in show about automobile repair. The guffawing grease-monkey hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi between them hold one Ph.D. and two B.A. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Public radio doesn’t have true multicultural and socioeconomic representation, but it reflects a broader geographic audience as a whole, not demographic slices through a corporate prism based in New York, Texas or Los Angeles. Instead of drowning in national anonymity, listeners can find out what’s happening in the community and discover a sense of belonging.

Educational stations:

KQED 88.5 FM, www.kqed.org: Begun as the Bay Area Educational TV Association in 1952, the station changed its call letters two years later. In 1998, it is undertaking a yearlong civic journalism project reporting about Bay Area race relations. Another highlight: The San Francisco show of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion at 2:45 p.m. March 26 at the Masonic Auditorium. Tickets for $27, $33 and $40 go on sale at the City Box Office (1-415-392-4400) and BASS (762-BASS) beginning Feb. 9.

KALW 91.7 FM, www.sfusd.k12.ca.us/programs/kalw/content.htm: Founded in 1941, it was the first educational FM station west of the Mississippi. The transmitter was donated to the school district to teach radio technology to teen-agers like a young Don Sherwood, who would later dominate early Bay Area radio. Recent changes include increasing “Tangents” from three to five hours. The station reviews its programming quarterly.

Other community stations:

KPFA 94.1 FM, www.kpfa.org: Part of Pacifica radio network, the first network to rely upon audience support rather than advertising dollars. Its founder was Lew Hill, a Quaker, conscientious objector and Washington, D.C.-based news broadcaster. He helped establish KPFA and Pacifica Radio in 1949 as well as its goals toward cultural diversity and independent funding.

Radio Free Berkeley, 104.1 FM, www.freeradio.org: Founded by Berkeley resident Stephen Dunifer on April 11, 1993, the station currently airs eclectic music, news and commentary 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a “living room” format. Dunifer challenges the constitutional aspects of FCC policy, in that the agency refuses to license broadcasters operating under 100 watts. In the meantime, the station will broadcast its show live on the Internet by this summer. He and other micro-broadcasters compress their programs into downloadable audio files at www.radio4all.org. There is also, for a small fee, a shareware editing program that lets people edit their own audio files, make their own program and load it back up on the Web site for true interactive communication. To keep up on the legal side of Dunifer’s case, check out www.368hayes.com.

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